January 22, 2022 | Jerry Bergman

JPL Sued for Discrimination

Poetic Justice for A Darwin Skeptic: JPL Sued For Discrimination
and Forced to Pay Out 10 Million Dollars in Restitution to Former Employees

 

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

Introduction

Twelve years ago, David Coppedge was a proud member of a large team of scientists that made space science history. Specifically, he was for 14 years an information technology specialist at Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), a division of Caltech (California Institute of Technology). Coppedge was also the Team Lead System Administrator for the Cassini Mission for nine years. Cassini was a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency to send a probe to study Saturn, its rings, and its moons. The program was named after the Italian mathematician Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625 –1712) and was the largest outer-planet mission ever conducted by NASA and JPL.

Coppedge occasionally approached co-workers with whom he had worked with for years, each of whom he had considered a friend, to invite them to discuss and view science DVDs about intelligent design. Coppedge thought that “If JPL can talk about life evolving by chance, then employees should have the freedom to present scientific evidence for alternative views like design. Many times during work hours I had gone to JPL lectures presenting a naturalistic origin and evolution of life.”[1] It turned out that a naturalistic origin and evolution of life was the only view allowed to be discussed at JPL.

On April 13, 2009, as a result of loaning DVDs on intelligent design to his co-workers, Coppedge was accused of harassment and investigated by Human Resources (HR). Normally, one thinks of racial or sexual harassment with this charge, not intelligent design. But as a result of a very slipshod investigation by one female HR employee, he was slapped with a Written Warning for violating both JPL’s Unlawful Harassment Policy and their Ethics Policy. None of the other managers questioned her decision. Furthermore, he was demoted from the Team Lead position he held for nine years.

A major incorrect assumption of his critics was that “Intelligent Design” is religion (a term they never defined). Loaning the DVDs was therefore considered “pushing religion.” Viewing the DVD’s in question makes it clear that the content does not cover what is normally designated as religion, such as discussing, or even mentioning, God, Jesus, the Bible, or other holy books. Rather, the theme is similar to many other educational films about nature, focusing on the wonders, beauty, and design of the natural world.  My judgment comes from watching hundreds of nature and science films. The main difference is the design covered in detail in most of these films was attributed to evolution, but the films Coppedge loaned to co-workers illustrated the evident design in the natural world, and allowed the viewer to extrapolate its meaning and source. The two main films he loaned were classics from Illustra Media, which can now be watched on YouTube.

  • Unlocking the Mystery of Life, which deals with DNA, the cell, and molecular machines
  • The Privileged Planet, which deals with the origin of the Earth and the universe. This DVD contains interviews by four JPL scientists. Naturally, Coppedge assumed that JPL employees would be interested in it.

Design = Religion; Irrationality = Science

Four JPL scientists are interviewed in this film.

JPL labeled the worldview that explained the origin of the universe as a result of intelligence as “religion.” In contrast, it labeled as “science” the view that explains the origin of the universe, not as a result of intelligence, but rather the product of time, chance, and fortuitous events. That latter view has been elucidated by the most eminent cosmologist of the last century, Stephen Hawking.

In his last book written before he died, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Hawking wrote that science has proven the origin of all life is by biological evolution and the last question left for religion is how the universe began. This question, Hawking assured his readers, has also been answered: the Big Bang, he believes, ultimately caused the creation of everything from nothing. In this account the first something that appeared from nothing was “perhaps smaller than a proton.”[2] Then the expansion of the universe occurred from this smaller-than-a-proton object and, after billions of years, eventually stars and planets emerged. Thus, the Big Bang supposedly explains the origin of space, matter, energy, and time, and everything – all of which somehow appeared from nothing.[3]

Astronomer Lawrence M. Krauss also argued for a universe from nothing in his best-selling book.

In astonishingly blunt but irrational terms, Hawking wrote that, thanks to the Big Bang, “you can get a whole universe for free” because “the fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialize out of nothing.[4] Thus, Hawking writes, “the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence. . . [and] we do not need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang.”[5] Hawking thus appealed to religious arguments to justify his irrational view.

This view JPL considered “science.” In contrast, Intelligent Design supports the first law of thermodynamics, the best-attested law in all of science, which states that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only altered in form.[6] So which worldview is religious, and which has better scientific support?

Coppedge’s main critics could not have known whether the DVDs were religious in nature because, as far as we could determine, none of them even bothered to watch them. They irresponsibly based their conclusion on common public assumptions about Darwinism and design as presented in secular schools and the media – not on the evidence in the DVDs.

About Discrimination Law

In all discrimination cases it must be shown that the defendants were aware of the plaintiff’s beliefs that formed the basis of his or her complaint. In deposition, the Cassini Program Manager admitted that Coppedge’s sharing of the DVDs was well-known from “general hallway conversation” and that he agreed with Chin that it was “pushing religion” to share the DVDs on intelligent design.

Darwin Fish on a scientist’s office door at JPL.

Another key to proving discrimination is the creation of a hostile work environment for the plaintiff. As an insider at one NASA center (JPL), Coppedge writes about the hostile work environment for Christians. He noted that many Christians work at JPL, some in high positions, but

most Christians hide their beliefs in this environment. They have semi-secret Bible studies among themselves, but there is no evangelism or outreach.  Years ago, one Bible study [group] tried to get their meetings published in the JPL newsletter. They got delays and delays. Then JPL changed the rules so that those [groups] could be denied but the gay-lesbian support group could still advertise their meetings.[7]

Other evidence of a hostile work environment included cartoons on the doors of some co-workers mocking creationists with “Darwin fish” symbols, and mocking traditional Christian beliefs, such as traditional marriage. It was all part of an environment that created a hostile atmosphere which made Coppedge feel like an outsider, with an unwelcome worldview that others perceived to be religious in nature.

A Short Account of the Triggering Incident

Illustra Media’s classic on intelligent design in DNA and the cell. Click to watch.

David’s boss, Greg Chin, had a strong antipathy to intelligent design. About seven years earlier when Coppedge offered to loan him Unlocking the Mystery of Life, Chin stated he disagreed with it because it did not comport with Darwinian evolution. He did not want to expose himself to evidence that was not in harmony with his worldview. This kind of bias is a major reason why bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and intolerance exists in so many people. When Coppedge learned where Chin stood on this issue, he avoided discussing the subject with him again. Chin’s attitude surprised Coppedge because he knew Chin had come from a strong Christian background. Like many who attend secular universities, Chin abandoned his Christian faith and embraced Darwinism.[8]

In an angry tirade against Coppedge in March 2009, Chin forbade Coppedge from sharing the DVDs. He ordered him to stop “pushing religion” with the DVDs, and said “You are not to discuss religion or politics with anyone in this office” under threat of termination. Coppedge immediately complied, but that did not help; he was still reprimanded and demoted a month later.

On April 19, 2009, Chin told the entire Cassini program team that Coppedge was “stepping aside” from his Team Lead role—when actually he was forced out of his position. JPL’s lawyers spun the facts, claiming he was simply “re-assigned,” when he was actually demoted from his role of Team Lead. His responsibilities were given to Nick Patel, a member of David’s team. Nick didn’t want the responsibility, but was told he had to take it.

Coppedge spent months trying to reverse this injustice through internal channels. William Becker, an attorney with the nonprofit Alliance Defense Fund (now Alliance Defending Freedom), agreed to represent Coppedge. After JPL refused to act, Becker filed a lawsuit against JPL for religious discrimination. Nine months after filing the lawsuit, Coppedge was abruptly fired, ending his fourteen-year JPL career.

Retaliation for filing a discrimination lawsuit is illegal. Coppedge had filed the religious discrimination lawsuit in April 2010, and was illegally fired the next January – a clear case of retaliation for exercising his legal rights. Coppedge had been to many going-away parties for other employees. But without warning, he was literally ushered out of the back door. JPL had already cleared out his work area and he was not even allowed to say good-bye to those he had worked closely with for the last 14 years. No party, no watch, not even a handshake. Instead, he experienced forced physical removal like a convicted criminal being sent into exile.[9] Coppedge writes:

Little did I know I was about to find out the extent of intolerance against intelligent design. That intolerance even exceeded the ignorance at JPL of what intelligent design is. The knee-jerk reaction is that it is a religious view. Strange; nobody ever pointed out the religion in the DVD.[10]

Becker concluded the obvious, that Coppedge had been discriminated against for his Christian beliefs—not that intelligent design is religion, but that JPL management had perceived it to be religion. “They don’t have a policy against discussing religion and politics, so they essentially singled him out. He was forbidden from doing something everybody else was allowed to do.”[11] After the firing, Becker added Retaliation to the causes of action. With the help of an expert witness on employee compensation, Becker figured that Coppedge was due $860,000 in lost wages and $500,000 for emotional distress damages.

The Trial and Decision

The case finally went to trial in early 2012, three years after the triggering incident, and over a year after the firing. In spite of a five-week trial with 22 witness, Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige ruled against him six months later on all ten counts of discrimination and retaliation, with no explanation. He even allowed JPL’s attorneys to write the decision for him. The judge had promised to watch the DVDs but never indicated he did.

Sadly, in every case of the over 200 I have reviewed in the most complete study of discrimination against Darwin skeptics, this has been the normal outcome.[12] In the five-week anti-discrimination lawsuit, California Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige

sided with JPL’s team of high-paid lawyers shortly after which Coppedge was diagnosed with cancer…. Taking advantage of his vulnerability, David Coppedge’s supervisors sought to hurt and silence him. They succeeded. And that, by fear of career and personal ruin, is how the scientific “consensus” against ID is maintained.[13]

The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture remarked that “JPL gives free reign to employees who attack intelligent design in the workplace, even as the lab singled out and punished Coppedge.”[14] Attorney Joshua Youngkin added,

JPL denied that it targeted Coppedge for his intelligent design views, but evidence from private emails, testimony, and other documents clearly showed otherwise. …. JPL also tried to smear Coppedge as a bad employee. But the record shows that he received excellent job evaluations until after he was attacked for his intelligent design views.[15]

The Corrupt Judge in Coppedge’ Case

The judge in Coppedge’s lawsuit, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige, an appointee of liberal governor Jerry Brown, was judged himself by the Commission on Judicial Performance as incompetent, corrupt, and unethical. For example, he had his clerk conduct case management conferences, a violation of canon 3B(1), which requires a judge to “hear and decide all matters assigned to the judge except those in which he or she is disqualified.” This gives the appearance that the clerk, rather than the judge, was running the court. Hiroshige had been reprimanded in 2010 for similar offenses but ignored it, and so complaints about his courtroom were lodged again in 2018.

Statements by lawyers and peers against the judge were brutal. One particular research attorney said that Hiroshige “routinely crosses the line into advocacy by including arguments not even raised in the opposing papers to justify her asinine rulings. And the ‘judge’ is either too stupid or too lazy (I think it’s both) to care or do anything about it.” Of the 24 comments on Hiroshige from attorneys dating back to 2010, only two statements were favorable; all the rest were openly unfavorable. The oldest comment, posted Sept. 30, 2010, says: “This guy doesn’t like to work, which means that his clerk/research attorney rules the roost, while he sits placidly on the bench.”[16] Other statements about his gross incompetence include:

  •  “The Judicial Assistant is the one running the courtroom and lawyers even call HIM the judge. Judge never comes out. Someone needs to report both of them.” July 11, 2018.
  • “He is routinely 1.5 to 2 hours late for EVERY hearing, rarely reads the papers, and employs perhaps the rudest court clerk (and staff) in the entire Los Angeles Superior Court system.” June 25, 2018.
  • “Courtroom assistant is a human dumpster fire. Rude to everyone, but based on Judge Hiroshige’s attitude, she has a mentor and enabler.” Aug. 22, 2017.

Hiroshige even inappropriately used stationary imprinted with his official title and court address and personal checks to advance his personal interests. In spite of these damning reports, the Coppedge case was allowed to stand, which is the norm except in unusual situations. This is another example of the ineptitude of the American judicial system. Coppedge and Becker had both noted the judge’s frequent tardiness and his tendency to have his staff run the courtroom and do his work for him.

Anniversary display at JPL, 2008. Photo by David Coppedge

EEOC Rules JPL is Guilty of Discrimination

Almost a decade later, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), after a careful investigation, ruled JPL was guilty of discrimination—age discrimination. As a result of a class action lawsuit, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory agreed to pay $10 million in fines and damages, and make changes in the way hiring and promotions are handled in an effort to combat their discriminatory practices regarding age of employees.[17]

The EEOC’s research concluded that JPL systemically laid off employees over the age of 40 in favor of retaining younger employees and, furthermore, older employees were often passed over for rehire in favor of less qualified, younger employees.[18] The statement from attorneys involved in the settlement echoed what technology-related-industry employees have for years claimed about older workers facing age discrimination. Evidently JPL lawyers felt that the evidence EEOC had collected was very compelling and they would not prevail, so they settled for $10 million.

Note: The EEOC likely had no knowledge of Coppedge’s 2012 lawsuit and, consequently, neither Christianity nor intelligent design were issues in the EEOC case.

In a search for fired JPL employees who might have suffered age discrimination between 2010 and 2020, Coppedge was contacted by the EEOC in November 2020, and offered a chance to present evidence for a claim. He was only part of a large pool of plaintiffs in the class action. Coppedge felt he had a claim, and Becker agreed, because he had been laid off two months before his 60th birthday, when finding IT work becomes more difficult, and the lab had brought in two younger employees to the team just a few months before he and another employee who was near retirement were laid off together. (Coppedge believes this was to “cover their tracks” so that it would not look like retaliation for his lawsuit. Depositions revealed that JPL’s lawyers had been meeting secretly with management about David’s lawsuit, no doubt to find a way to get rid of him.)

EEOC attorneys concluded that Coppedge had suffered age discrimination by JPL, as defined by the lawsuit against JPL based on “information obtained throughout the  investigation.”[19] The money settlement he received from the EEOC, determined on the basis of the evidence, amounted to about $19,000, or about 0.2% of the settlement. Taxes reduced this to $15,000. Coppedge gave a significant portion to charity, including to the institutions and individuals who had helped him in his earlier trial, and kept some for hardware improvements for his home business. So he did receive something from JPL after all— if only about 2.2% of what he had lost in salary and benefits from his 2011 layoff.

Summary: Poetic Justice

The EEOC case is a good example of the fact that government civil rights agencies are very interested in certain types of discrimination, such as age discrimination. Conversely, from my research, they have little or no interest in protecting the careers of Darwin skeptics.[20] The antagonism manifested by JPL in the Coppedge case is typical of the over 200 cases I have documented in detail.

Dr Bergman documented censorship of Darwin skeptics in 3 volumes.

I once naively assumed that well-educated persons have the right, actually the obligation, to discuss questions in an unbiased way such as those JPL endeavors to answer: where did life come from? JPL made it clear that only one view on this fundamental question was permitted for discussion by JPL employees; any opposition to that view and worldview was to be censored. No wonder so many persons (under threat, or due to ignorance) accept a worldview that does not stand up under scientific scrutiny and, when examined carefully, is irrational, like Hawking’s view that our complex, life-permitting universe just “popped into existence from nothing.”

David Klinghoffer at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, himself very familiar with discrimination against intelligent design, commented in 2016 at Evolution News:

Of all the cases we’ve covered here where scientists and others have been persecuted for sharing ideas favorable to intelligent design, what happened to David Coppedge is arguably the most reprehensible. That’s partly because Coppedge, working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab as a team lead on the Cassini Mission to Saturn, wasn’t a Ph.D. scientist with the space agency. He was a computer administrator, albeit a senior one, and therefore by definition a less powerful, more vulnerable player in the science world.[21]

It was too little, too late for David, but JPL’s $10 million dollar punishment looks to me like a bit of poetic justice.

Note: The most complete account of Coppedge’s trial in print can be found in Vol III of the series, Censoring the Darwin Skeptics (2018, 2021), ch. 17.

References

[1] Bergman, Jerry. Bergman, Jerry. 2021. Censoring the Darwin Skeptics: How Belief in Evolution is Enforced by Eliminating Dissidents, 2nd Edition. Southworth, WA: Leafcutter Press p. 336.

[2]Hawking, Stephen W. 2018. Brief Answers to the Big Questions. New York, NY: Bantam Books, p. 34.

[3] Hawking, 2018, pp. 29-31.

[4] Hawking, 2018, pp. 31-32.

[5] Hawking, 2018, p. 34.

[6] Sonntag, Richard E., and Claus Borgnakke. 2020. Fundamentals of Thermodynamics, 10th Edition. New York, NY: Wiley.

[7] Bergman, 2021. pp. 335-336.

[8] Bergman, Jerry. 2020. Darwinism is the Doorway to Atheism: Why Creationists Become Evolutionists, 2nd Edition. Southworth, WA: Leafcutter Press.

[9] Bergman, 2021, p. 349.

[10] Personal correspondence dated May 28, 2009.

[11] Siegal, Daniel. 2012. Former JPL worker claims discrimination over creationism belief. LA Times, March 2. https://www.latimes.com/socal/glendale-news-press/news/tn-gnp-xpm-2012-03-02-tn-pas-0304-ex-jpl-worker-claims-religious-discrimination-story.html

[12] Bergman, Jerry. 2021,  Slaughter of the Dissidents: The Shocking Truth About Killing the Careers of Darwin Doubters, 3rd Edition. Southworth, WA: Leafcutter Press; Bergman, Jerry, and Kevin Wirth (editor). 2016. Silencing the Darwin Skeptics: The War Against Theists, 2nd Edition. Southworth, WA: Leafcutter Press.

[13] Klinghoffer, David. 2016. NASA Versus David Coppedge: Most Reprehensible Case of Anti-Intelligent Design Persecution Yet? Evolution News & Science Today, December 19. https://evolutionnews.org/2016/12/david_coppedge/

[14] Evolution News & Science Today. 2016. Judge Lets NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab Off the Hook for Discrimination against Intelligent Design Proponent, January 17. https://evolutionnews.org/2013/01/judge_lets_nasa/

[15] Evolution News & Science Today, 2016.

[16] Judge Hiroshige Admonished for Courtroom Mismanagement. Thursday, October 25, 2018. Los Angeles, CA: Metropolitan News Company.

[17] Jet Propulsion Laboratory to Pay $10 Million to Settle EEOC Age Discrimination Lawsuit. 2020. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, June 11.
https://www.eeoc.gov/newsroom/jet-propulsion-laboratory-pay-10-million-settle-eeoc-age-discrimination-lawsuit; Stephen Danz & Associates. 2020. Employment Attorney for JET Propulsion Laboratory Employees, November 20.
https://www.employmentattorneyca.com/employment-attorney-for-jet-propulsion-laboratory-employees/

[18] Pasadena Star-News. 2020. JPL settles federal age discrimination suit for $10 million, April 8.
https://www.pasadenastarnews.com/2020/04/08/jpl-settles-federal-age-discrimination-suit-for-10-million/.

[19] Letter from EEOC to Dave Coppedge, dated November 1, 2021.

[20] Bergman, Jerry. 2016, 2021.

[21] Kinghoffer, David. 2016. NASA Versus David Coppedge: Most Reprehensible Case of Anti-Intelligent Design Persecution Yet? https://evolutionnews.org/2016/12/david_coppedge/, December 19.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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